Though the 2021-22 season hasn’t gone quite according to plan, the Badgers enter the halfway point with a glimmer of hope.
Along with a 20-14 victory over Army on Saturday, their Big Ten West rival, the number two ranked Iowa Hawkeyes were upset at home by unranked Purdue, 24-7.This loss by Iowa now gives the Badgers control over their own destiny in the Big 10 West.
If Wisconsin can find a way to win out for the rest of the season, they’ll secure a spot in the Big 10 title game. But that’s easier said than done and can’t happen unless the Badgers utilize their most effective players to their advantage.
Take freshman running back Braelon Allen, for example. Allen entered the season as one of five running backs on the roster expecting to see significant snaps. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding Allen’s name since his commitment as a 4-star recruit in July 2020.
It was undoubted Allen would make an impact on this Badgers team — it was just a matter of how soon he could develop into a lead role. Given recent events including the dismissal of fellow star running back Jalen Berger, that time has come sooner than some expected. Over the past two weeks, Braelon has been tasked with the responsibility of handling what was once Berger’s volume. So far, he has taken the opportunity and ran with it.
In his first college game with serious action two weeks ago at Illinois, Allen rushed for 131 yards on 18 carries. He scored a touchdown and helped lead the Badgers to a 24-0 shutout victory. The following week against Army, he was just as dynamic, rushing for 108 yards on 16 carries and another touchdown.
It’s not just Badger fans recognizing the excellent play of Allen, as he was named the Big Ten’s Week 7 Freshman of the Week for his performance against Army. Allen also said he’s been keeping in touch with former Badger and NFL pro-bowler Melvin Gordon for advice and guidance, which surely puts him in good hands for the future.
With him and Chez Mellusi both running with incredible efficiency, the Badgers are more than likely to find success on the ground for the remainder of the year. As the offense continues to run strong, one part of the defense has been particularly excellent — the linebacking core.
Linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn were among the most highly anticipated Badgers returning for the 2021-22 season. As two of Wisconsin’s best defensive players last year, they came in with high expectations and have certainly lived up to them. Chenal leads the team with 30 tackles, accompanied by 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
He’s been all over the field in every game and especially helped the Badgers seal their victory against Army. With Army down in the fourth quarter looking to drive down the field and potentially win the game, Chenal came up with a huge sack and forced fumble to get the ball back to Wisconsin in scoring position to put the game out of reach. He finished the game with a monster 17 tackles, with 2.5 being for a loss.
Fellow linebacker Jack Sanborn finished with 12 tackles and a clutch onside kick recovery to end the Army game. Sanborn has been outstanding this year with 26 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery. He passed up his opportunity to enter the NFL draft in 2021 and chose to play out his senior season for the Badgers, and he has proved to be a vital component to the success of the defense.
Sophomore linebacker Nick Herbig has also been an outstanding surprise on the Wisconsin defense, with 22 tackles, 3.5 sacks and four passes defended in six games. This linebacking core, often referred to as “Death Row,” has been crucial to Wisconsin’s success as a team and will continue to lead the rest of this talented defensive unit.
Even in a year where things haven’t gone as expected, there’s still great opportunities ahead within the season. With a lingering chance to claim the Big 10 crown, the time is now for the Badgers to utilize their explosive assets on both sides of the ball, play their pieces right and turn it around over the second half of the season.